It was 2015, I was living in Hong Kong, fully embracing the ‘Work Hard, Play Hard’ mentality which characterises the city. A typical day consisted of getting up at 5.45am for Cross Fit, going to work from 8am – 8pm with no time for lunch, then seeing friends in the evening or doing a dragon boating practice. Weekends would entail running ultramarathons in Hong Kong’s amazing mountains and often very late, boozy nights out. Add to that a lot of travel and the jetlag that comes with it.
Then one day, I collapsed with a high fever and hit my head. At the hospital, I was told this was total exhaustion – my immune system was totally shot and I had serious adrenal fatigue. In other words, I was burnt out. It was my body’s way of saying STOP!
I became fascinated with researching burnout as I couldn’t understand how I had got to this point of depletion without noticing – I’m a psychologist and spend my days analysing behaviour!
Looking back, there were clear warning signs that I totally missed – feeling a constant sense of urgency, scattered attention, being irritable with others (which wasn’t like me) and making careless mistakes at work. I felt a constant lack of achievement and started to doubt my ability to do my job, convinced I would be exposed as a ‘fraud’ soon enough. Mentally, I had started to find even making the simplest decisions or tasks totally overwhelming so would just avoid doing them and procrastinate.
In my personal life, my relationship with my family was strained, I didn’t have the emotional energy to speak to them much and when I did, was moody. I also felt this odd feeling of numbness – not reacting emotionally to anything. It felt like I was living in a dream world looking at myself from the outside. Physically, I was tired but just kept going trying to be a Duracell bunny and relying on a lot of caffeine and sugar.
My burnout didn’t happen overnight, it was a build up of stress over many months, probably years without proper recovery. The World Health Organisation recently recognised burnout as an official workplace syndrome, adding it to its ‘International Classification of Diseases’(LINK) that helps medical providers diagnose diseases. It describes it as ‘a syndrome resulting in chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed’, defining it with three main dimensions:
- energy depletion and exhaustion
- mental distance from job of feelings or negativity and cynicism and
- reduced professional efficacy (self-doubt and feeling incompetent)
Now I am thankful to my burnout wake up call – it triggered me to make major, healthier lifestyle changes including quitting my job. I set up my own business specialising in helping individuals and companies recognise the warning signs of burnout and take a proactive approach to building resilience.
So what can you do?
Thanks to science, we now know a lot more about resilience and the good news is it can be developed – like a muscle. But, just like getting physically fit, it requires a proper training plan with targeted effort, adequate recovery and regular review and adjustment. The interesting thing about resilience is that most of the strategies are very simple and very small adjustments can have a massive impact.
To build your resilience, I suggest focusing on 3 key areas:
Self-awareness – resilient people are acutely aware of early warning signs that they are straining and know what they need to do to reset or recharge. I now know when I’ve pushed it too far and have my own personal strategies and tools to draw upon. I also have adopted ways of monitoring and checking in with myself as part of my daily routine so I can be more proactive in staying resilient. For example, a morning meditation to begin the day and pausing to ask myself ‘how am I feeling today’? Everyone has different strategies that work for them so it’s a bit of trial and error.
Self-compassion – you know that little voice inside your head? ‘You idiot, why did you do that’, ‘I should have..’, ‘I need to do xxx’, ‘I’m so useless’. Many of us would never talk to others like we talk to ourselves. Stop putting too much pressure on yourself. Be realistic in what you can achieve. Give yourself a break.
Self- care – finally, looking after yourself– both physically and mentally. Many people get resilience wrong, they push themselves too hard to stick to their ‘healthy habits’, like forcing themselves to go for a run when they lack the physical energy. Real resilience is about being kind to yourself, saying no at times to things that may compromise your wellbeing. Adopting self-care habits are really important but also remembering to ask yourself ‘What do I need? Is this helpful?’
In addition to this, having a strong support network is critical and not being afraid to ask for help even if you don’t think you need it.
Now we are several months in to dealing with the stress of COVID-19, the worrying thing is that many people are on the path to burnout but don’t realise it. Resilience is a choice – whilst we can’t change what happens to us, we can change how we respond to it. I’ve put together this 2 minute video to help illustrate the 2 paths – to burnout or resilience.
I encourage you all to take a pause to reflect on how stress is showing up for you and one small change you can make to build your resilience muscle. If you need some help – take my AURA assessment to check your proximity to burnout, gain insight into your stress profile and get personalised tips and strategies for building resilience. You also get access to a curated online resources library full of evidence-based resilience strategies, videos, articles and other tools to support you. Exclusively for Enhale friends, I’m offering this at a 85% discount for only HK$ until the end August 2020, with the code ENHALE100. I’m also offering a discounted resilience coaching rate during the pandemic – email me for details.
Rachel Austen, C.Psychol. MBPsS.
Director, Austen Advisory Limited
Rachel is a chartered occupational psychologist with over 15 years of experience consulting for some of the largest FTSE 100 companies to help them address their people issues. She now runs Austen Advisory which specialises in building personal, team and organisational resilience. She still enjoying running and travelling, but to less of an extreme!